The War on ‘Democracy’

Crikey reported during the week that Gerard Henderson was threatening to sue UWA Press over their triple-titled The War on Democracy/Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press/A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Conservative Dream. But it’s in the bookshops, and that’s where it should stay, so that it can sink under the weight of its own silliness.

The authors, Niall Lucy, author of A Derrida Dictionary, and Steve Mickler, begin with a Humpty-Dumptyish definition of ‘democracy’:

As an idea and an ideal, then democracy acknowledges that between the many different interests in a society there are unequal relations of power, and so it acts to give power to those interests which on their own are less equal than others.

That’s hardly how most people would define democracy, which is about giving people political power, not equalising power more generally (in practice a broader equalisation of power has been a consequence of democracy, but it is not ‘democracy’ in itself). What Lucy and Mickler mean is closer to social democracy, or social justice. I can’t see any intellectual value in conflating separate concepts; the authors are confused, or perhaps they are trying to use the term as a polemical device to disassociate conservatives from something everyone believes to be A Good Thing.

‘Democracy’ is not the only eccentric definition. The first ‘conservative’ to be attacked is Luke Slattery, who I think would probably put himself somewhere on the left, and certainly would not be seen by anyone on the right as a ‘conservative’. But he gets labelled a ‘conservative’ because he is against postmodernism.

Ironically, this is because Lucy and Mickler seem to follow the logic of their own criticism of how conservatives construct the left:

According to the brutal logic of conservatism, if you are not on the side of the right you must be a communist sympathiser … and of course ‘communism’, as everyone is supposed to know, is code for ‘Stalinism’.

I know some conservatives can engage in hyperbole, but very few contemporary leftists are seen as communists, much less Stalinists (actually, ‘Trots’ is the standard right-wing term for the radical left, ie the Trotskyites who defined themselves against Stalinists, in the long-ago days when communism was a major force on the left. But even ‘Trot’ is not meant to imply communism, just that they are the loose political descendants of the original Trotskyites). Lucy and Mickler never bother establishing their point here. The only ‘conservative’ they quote using the word ‘Stalinist’ is Gerard Henderson, who suggests that like ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’, ‘Stalinism”s modern usage is as a ‘mere weapon of abuse, devoid of any historical meaning’. Exactly. Laughably (in more ways than one) Lucy and Mickler ‘illustrate’ their point by reference to the send-up of Alec Baldwin in Team America, saying it is satire on a conservative caricature. But they are taking the deliberate wild exaggeration of Team America as if it is a fact worthy of use in a book published by a university press. Can I cite Team America in my essays too? It would be a lot more fun to use that as ‘research’ than to have to read about the actual subject matter.

So on the twisted logic of if you don’t agree with us you must be a ‘conservative’, because Slattery opposes the postmodernism which Lucy and Mickler support he must be a conservative, even though there is no other evidence to support this conclusion.

I’m not sure that, except defined by not supporting a radical left agenda, Gerard Henderson is much of a ‘conservative’ either. His main sin, it seems, is not to have written any articles about the James Hardie asbestos compensation issue, which Lucy and Mickler believe is because James Hardie Chair Meredith Hellicar was also Chair of The Sydney Institute, of which Henderson is Executive Director. Yet the authors can’t even get their lines straight. On p.57 they say this is the kind of issue that Henderson would normally be interested in, yet on p.58 they say that since July 2000 (why not search earlier columns?) Henderson ‘never seems to have commented critically on any private corporation…’. So would he be interested or wouldn’t he? The p.58 point seems to undermine their argument against Henederson. His areas of interest are political and intellectual affairs, and he sensibly writes on subjects he knows something about. If he did write regularly on corporate affairs, but had failed to mention James Hardie, they could reasonably have inferred that the silence on asbestos was because of the Hellicar link, but otherwise not. But even if this had been a reasonable inference, it would have been a trivial point. Nobody is obliged to attack their donors, employers, allies or friends. It is only when they praise or defend them without acknowledging the link that they can legimately be criticised.

There is much else wrong with this book – Christopher Pearson has already corrected some of the errors in the chapter about him. I don’t want to waste any more of my Saturday writing about it. I will finish with one question I cannot easily answer: why are critiques of the Australian right from the left so uniformly bad? Few of the critics seem to have any idea of what they are talking about. Surely it would be in their interests to write powerful critiques of the ideas right-wingers actually hold?

32 thoughts on “The War on ‘Democracy’

  1. Good review, Andrew, thanks. I look forward to reading the book, not least because I think it will say a lot more about the authors than their targets.

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  2. Didn’t you get a guernsey Andrew? You’ve got a bit of work to do to gee up your profile, haven’t you? Oh well, you’re young yet!

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  3. Generally they don’t actually read anything much by the non-left, apart from columns that don’t test their concentration span. So they recycle the opinions of other lefties as the positions and opinions of the non-left. So ignorance feeds on itself.

    They have got away with this for a long time, one hopes that eventually some of the brighter and more independent young lefties will do some research and discover what has been going on. But don’t hold your breath.

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  4. It could be said that centre right and centre left Australians who see themselves as intellectuals rarely visit economies in transition and are content to read about the results and history without actually experiencing them.
    Case in point, the Baltic countries. In Latvia, Soviet Stalinism destroyed or removed a 1/3 of the population in 40 years (and banned vegetarianism). The 3rd reich removed a 1/6 of the population during the war. In the centuries prior, capitalist Germanic free traders in the form of the Hanseatic league were an almost inoperable cancer decimating the local population’s efforts as farmers with a pagan nature based religion.
    In the contemporary Latvia, direct foreign investment of capital from the EU and the USA is causing huge economic imbalances between Riga and the provincal cities, increasing carbon emmissions, causing choking traffic jams, and generating a large brothel industry with the highest rate of HIV in Europe.
    So all the major narratives of democratic capitalism, communism and fascism do not work in favour of Latvia. Waste your life by arguing it however you want but Hayek, Marx and Galton are an anathema to human life and part of the same package.
    What is required is experiential poltical intellects rather than the flimsy book based inner urbanite variety that the Syd-Melb conurbation produces.

    In reference to the book above, both the authors and the reviewer have got the defintion of democracy wrong when it coems to Latvia.. It is the cause of economic imbalance in this case.

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  5. I haven’t read the book and have little desire to (sounds like more imported US polemic that’s been retargeted away from Rush Limbaugh (ptoooey!). No fan of Gerard Henderson either, there are plenty of ways to pick him apart without resorting to invective.

    This statement in Andrew’s review interested me though:

    “Nobody is obliged to attack their donors, employers, allies or friends. It is only when they praise or defend them without acknowledging the link that they can legimately be criticised.”

    This is true, but remember that you are judged by others by your associations, and if you choose to associate with evil and unethical people, you can rightly expect to be judged as similar in character.

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  6. Going into the political section of US bookstores is equally depressing. The titles are sensationalist and the book’s arguments are team-based strawmen. I have been meaning to take a photo of the section in the local barnes and noble as a visual representation of how bad it is getting.

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  7. Parkos, what do you know about Latvia? I have been there before, during and after the transition. When you go there next time ask your Latvian friends whether they want to go back to USSR. But be prepared for a rude response.

    Even ethnic Russians who are either second-class citizens or not citizens at all, are not rushing back to their beloved motherland…

    Sure there are imbalances. But there is a big difference between killing of 1/3 or 1/6 of the population – and imbalances.

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  8. Let’s attack the left’s generalisations about conservatives with lots of generalisations about the left.

    That’ll raise the standard of debate no end!

    Ho hum.

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  9. Slim, my comment is based on a great deal of specific criticism of the left. I was going to link to a couple of examples but the Catallaxy archive is gone.

    Blanket criticisms of the left work to the extent that the core political economic theories and policies of the left are defective. Incidentally some of those policies (state interference to correct almost any perceived problem) have at various times been shared by some groups on the non-left.

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  10. Well Boris, feudalism and then capitalist attrition has accounted for 9 times the current population of Norway having left and repopulated eleswhere. It may take longer, it may be smoothed over historically by Ayn Rand supporters, but it is no less insidious.
    9 times the current population, think about it, its either harsh landlords or the freezing cold or probably a mixture of the two.

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  11. Rafe: Heaven forbid that the state try to correct any perceived problem – that’s clearly best left to free market forces.

    I’m with Parkos “So all the major narratives of democratic capitalism, communism and fascism do not work in favour of Latvia.” Or maybe the world in general. These are all 19th & 20th century debates. None has prevailed to the extent of effectively dealing with poverty and third world debt, what to speak of peace and creating sustainable economies.

    And I don’t buy the argument that ‘my’ theory will work if I’m given enough time and the right idealised conditions.

    Time for a new rational, non-adversarial paradigm. Left-Right, You’re Wrong and I’m Right may give us some intellectual or moral comfort for our chosen prejudices, but it ain’t delivering the goods.

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  12. Slim, in my view market solutions are the best of all bad solutions KNOWN to mankind. It showed tremendous success in some places (eg soth east asia) but not others. There is still a debate whether in those other places it has really been tried, but I will not take one side of that debate or the other.

    It is important to realise that market forces are not supposed to solve ALL the problems, just some of them.

    I predict that in 30 years Latvia will be fine just like Portugal is (which in 1972 was the poorest country in Europe). If it solves its problem with the Russian population – and that’s much bigger problem than those imbalances Parkos is talking about. But that has little to do with economics.

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  13. Ah! The voice of reason!

    “It is important to realise that market forces are not supposed to solve ALL the problems, just some of them.”

    And equally a social justice perspective isn’t to blame for ALL problems and will be part of any effective and sustainable soution. But the casual reader might get that idea from some of the self-congratulatory tone of some writers here from time to time. One needs to sift through it all carefully and thoughtfully, without sloganeering.

    My cafe got a nice mention in the Age ME today. While reading the article, a local remarked that the Falls Festival tickets had sold out in 30 minutes. I replied that what the punters don’t get the e-bay scalpers will. A local pharmacist defended scalping by stating that “It’s either a free market or it isn’t.”

    I didn’t pursue the argument, but there it is again. Why does everyone insist it’s one thing OR the other. It’s likely a little of both.

    I later thought I should have quipped: “Free market? Yeah, of course. That’s why tomato growers in the Congo can’t afford to eat them. And I guess you’d be in favour of Safeway getting into the dispensing business?”

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  14. “In Latvia, Soviet Stalinism destroyed or removed a 1/3 of the population in 40 years (and banned vegetarianism).”

    Oh, Horrors! Those naughty Stalinists, always banning vegetarianism!

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  15. Slim, I don’t know why tomato growers in the Congo can’t afford to eat tomatoes, if this is true. You’d have to look at the problem carefully. Why is this true?

    It’s not a matter of having a perfect economic system – it’s more about whether a real system works reasonably well. I wonder how many people would seriously want a centralised planned economy?

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  16. Just to tie the threads up here, they had the world’s first Green prime minister until recently for many years in Latvia and have a woman president. The Farmers and the Greens were in alliance! Which may not be possible in Australia as the earth is now red and the remaining grass is yellow on many farms.
    Also the meat industry controlled the distribution of soy products and initially allowed tofu etc into the supermarkets as market orientation emerged. However, in a small market like Latvia they decided that tofu and soy were not what the people want and took it off the shelves.

    Boris, the Vietnam war and the resulting imbalances in Kampuchea were a disasterous direct result of badly managed and cruel free market intervention. Laos is still communist and Thailand has been taken over by the military becuase democracy has been exposed for the scam it is. Myanmar has some good markets for food but is basically not a democracy. So what the hell are you talking about in South East Asia? Singapore is no fun and if Malaysia is so good why didnt they accept Jason Soon?

    Yep, so you know Latvia, and the Russians there tend to work in the oil business, brothels and other crime more than average because they are denied government jobs. Many of them were transplanted the same way Australians were. Their position in society is similar to that of the Chinese in Malaysia, with Kalinngrad soon to develop into the Singapore of the Baltics, somewhat like Carlton now the junkies have been moved on.

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  17. Parkos, I did not say South East Asia is an example of the success of democracy. I say South East Asia (along with East Asia) is the success of the market economy. And no doubt it is. You haven’t noticed it? I spell it out for you, in a more or less chronological order: Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and wait for it, CHINA.

    None of these countries is a model democracy, not even Japan, but not to see the economic success here (compared to say Africa) is to be blind.

    If Kaliningrad develops into a Singapore it would be great, but I don’t think anything like this will happen any time soon. If anything, Russians are not like Chinese. In the enterprenerial spirit they are behind the Latvians and Estonians, if anything. But we shall see.

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  18. Parkos

    That first comment is one of the most uninformed posts I have ever read. And it was not redeemed by those that followed.

    The Hanseatic League effectively ended in the mid 17th century. Isn’t that a lot of time before the mid 20th century Nazi/Stalinist calamities you mention? Not quite relevant to

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  19. OK, that was the last comment on this Latvian diversion. My comments policy has rules against comments “digress too far from the thread

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  20. When we say South East Asia we mean IndoChina in Australian economic geography.. Japan is North Asia, so is China, Korea etc..
    Just to clear that up Boris.

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  21. Andrew,
    the thread of the discussion is still evolving around defintions and comparisons of democracy, totalitarianism etc. which you brought up in the original post.
    You might want to ask why the discussion has taken such direction rather then see it as a random tangent.
    Possibly it has gone a bit geographic but it is difficult to talk about Australian examples of totalitarianism, nazism and pure conservatism etc becuase they have not dominated in Australia for any length of time. And in comparison to other countries Australia does not have too many problems with its democratic system. I am going back to the Baltics next week, into Lithuania, but as per your request I will spring my findings on someone of a more rambling and less administrative nature. It is far more pleasant here than catallaxy at its roughest, and I appreciate your deletion fo my earlier post a couple of days ago as it might have aroused the Kraken..

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  22. This ‘evolution’ of the discussion had all the hallmarks of the rambling digressions of interest to only a few people that I am trying to avoid. Case closed.

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  23. Slim’s right. Pearson’s response started with generalisations about Maoists and Trotskyites, which is as bad as generalisations about conservatives and Howard huggers.

    Lucy, Mickler and Pearson all share an interest in promoting the interests of gays but they’re too busy bickering over their big P political and abstract philosophical loyalties to notice.

    Waste of brains all round.

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  24. For pete’s sake these people who like to give other people a touch up get all thinned skinned when silly people write about them.

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  25. Note: This comment has been edited to comply with the civility policy. You can read the original abuse at Fuller’s blog.

    (Crossposted to my blog and LP comments)

    He is my list of [my objections] derived from your blog post:

    1) a) Lucy and Mickler define democracy as an

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  26. A few points:

    * I don’t claim to speak for the ‘people’, indeed other commenters think I am an elitist, but I think I know the conventional meaning of ‘democracy’. While the idea can be extended, I don’t see the value in doing so, especially as it means that this book has to argue that various columnists are waging a ‘war’ (what an overworked metaphor) on a concept that they may not have even thought about. Lucy and Mickler could have argued that they were indifferent to social equality without using this awkward intellectual organising principle.
    * Team America was a gross but very funny movie. Incidentally, this is one point where I am closer to Lucy and Mickler than you. They say ‘As a political satire, it doesn’t get much sharper than Team America’.
    * I meant that the p.58 point undermined the whole point about Henderson, not the whole argument of the book. It should have been reasonably obvious from the context, but I have changed it to remove the ambiguity.

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  27. Your review is bad from the outset. It made the rest extremely hard going. Your early remarks pertaining to the author’s definition of democracy confuses participatory events like elections as being the whole enchalata. Let me explain. Power in a democracy always resides in the electorate or at least it should in a more improved version of what we have right now. Going to vote to get some bloke a job in Canberra is not how “most people” would define a 200 year old democratic nation. As the authors of the book judiciously show democracy is not a given thing, taken from some centralised source which can be located and then exchanged for capital. By the people, for the people. Elected representatives do just that, they represent, they are not the thing itself. Read the damn book again.

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